The people who didn't detest poacher John Graybill loved him, but no matter their views on his behavior they all expected he'd someday end up dead in an airplane crash. Graybill loved to fly. He loved to shoot Alaska big game, too, and he wasn't too particular about how he did it.
"He was the worst poacher we ever had,'' said retired Alaska fish and wildlife trooper Wayne Fleek.
That is not an easy distinction to claim in a state notorious for its bandit guides and outlaw hunters. Graybill was a sometimes thief, too; and a Chugiak plumber, and all-around nice guy who nobody wanted to see die in an airplane crash, even though they always knew in their heart of hearts that he would.
"It didn't surprise me,'' Fleek said. "No, it didn't surprise me."
"I would think that even the guys who chased him would be sad to see him go,'' added old Graybill friend Ken Deardorf, of McGrath.
Alaska outlaw and adventurer?
It was just north and east of the small, Interior community of McGrath, on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, that Graybill, 79, met his death, along with his wife, 78-year-old Dolores May or "Dolly'', on Aug. 12. No one is certain what happened there in the Sunshine Mountains other than that the plane the couple was flying in slammed into the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating. But the belief of many is that Graybill, who'd cheated the weather more than once in a small plane, finally flew into the storm from which he couldn't fly out.
"At his age, it could have been anything,'' Deardorf said. "But there was a guy flying with him who said he turned around because of the weather. I'm not even sure where he was going. I would guess he was heading up into the Alaska Range to go sheep hunting."
"I haven't talked to John in a long, long time," he added.
Graybill had moved on to new friends, most of them younger than Deardorf, all of them younger than Graybill. Cruise the Internet now, and there are a lot of folks half his age or younger singing his praises as an Alaska outlaw and adventurer.
Time has been kind to John Graybill. There is a nostalgia for the days when a man could do whatever the hell a man wanted to do in the north.
John and Dolly were eulogized in their old, hometown newspaper, the Dexter Leader in Michigan. "John's compassion for others and the great state of Alaska is what made him the remarkable man he became," family friend Lynda Boham was quoted as saying.
"The Graybills spent the early years of their marriage and raised their children in Dexter,'' the newspaper added. "The family moved to Alaska in 1968, and John became 'one of the finest Bush pilots in the world.'"
Many are those who would attest to the skills of John Graybill at the stick and rudder of a single-engine airplane. But to call him a Bush pilot -- someone who flies commercially for hire -- is a bit of a misnomer.
Graybill sometimes flew for hire, but it often wasn't exactly legal.
'He wasn't going to let the state get another of his airplanes'
Steve Reynolds, a retired state fish and wildlife trooper and author of the book, "Beyond the Killing Tree'' remembers when game wardens caught Graybill with a German hunter illegally flown to the edge of Katmai National Park and Preserve to kill a moose.
It was a standard sort of Graybill hunt: Fly around, find an animal, land, shoot it. The practice -- called same-day airborne hunting -- had once been legal in Alaska, but largely came to an end in the 1970s as wildlife populations spiraled downward. It had been illegal for quite some time when King Salmon-based wildlife trooper Dick Dykema flew over Graybill and the German who had killed a moose. Graybill spotted the warden's plane almost immediately.
"He just shakes his fist at Dick,'' Reynolds said.
Dykema, for his part, throttled back, opened the plane's window, and yelled out at Graybill that the authorities were coming to get him. Graybill's response, Reynolds said, was to pour gasoline on his nearby airplane, trail a finger of gas back away from the craft, and then put a match to it.
"He wasn't going to let the state get another of his airplanes,'' Reynolds said.
Graybill, interestingly enough, later told this same story in a somewhat more glorified form to Jeff Wise, a writer who profiled the one-time and possibly forever poacher for National Geographic Adventure magazine in 2001:
"He was field-dressing a bull moose for a pair of German clients,'' Wise wrote. "His plane was parked nearby, so it was obviously a case of same-day-airborne. 'It looked like a scene from WWI, there were so many planes circling around,' John says. 'And I knew I was caught, so I just set there. Pretty soon they landed a plane on a lake way down in the valley, way down, and two game wardens started walking up the hill.'
"Graybill knew that the state was going to confiscate his plane. He'd already lost two that way, and he couldn't bear to see them take a third. So he soaked a rag in gasoline, lit it, and threw it in the front seat. The clients who didn't speak a word of English, looked on in horror, certain that Graybill had lost his mind. By the time the wardens arrived, the plane was a smoking heap of debris.
"It was now late, and the rangers' plane down in the lake too far to reach before nightfall. The temperature was plummeting. The wardens pitched a small tent and let Graybill's two clients squeeze in with them. Graybill was left outside. 'They went in their little tent, and I sat outside in the rain and the wind. It started spitting snow,' he recalls. 'It was really cold, and boy, my teeth were chattering, and finally I thought, well, what the heck, they can't shoot me, so I just crawled in on top of everybody and burrowed in like a rabbit in a briar patch.'"
Whale of a storyteller
Everyone agrees John Graybill was a whale of a storyteller and just the sort of guy to spin a great yarn for a big-city reporter. Wise spent a fair bit of time with Graybill and wrote that he never saw the Chugiak man do anything illegal. Deardorf said much the same.
"John was always a gentleman to everyone I knew,'' Deardorf said. "I never saw John do anything illegal or unethical or even unkind. I think maybe he just looked at game regulations as suggestions.''
There was that side to the man, said Reynolds, who used to enjoy sitting down with Graybill for a cup of coffee. Former game warden Jim Nutgrass liked to do the same.
"John was one of the nicest guys I ever met,'' said the now 72-year-old Reynolds. "He was just as pleasant and as nice a guy as you could meet.''
When, of course, he wasn't ripping you off, the retired warden added.
Graybill had a bad reputation for breaking into remote cabins and stealing what he wanted. He was accused of cleaning out a hunting lodge once owned by former state Sen. Rick Halford, and he stole the emergency location transmitters out of the backs of a couple of airplanes in McGrath.
One of those airplanes happened to belong to Reynolds, who at the time suspected a local teenager of the theft. He found out otherwise not long after when a fellow game warden called to ask if his ELT was missing. It had turned up after troopers arrested Graybill at an illegal grizzly bear kill along the Yentna River north of Anchorage.
They were inventorying the airplane he'd used to fly into the kill when they found Reynold's ELT in the back. Reynold's subsequently called a McGrath lodge just to double check as to whether Graybill might have been in town the day the ELT disappeared.
"The owner said, 'Yeah, he was here. He had two hunters with him, and he left without paying the bill,''' Reynolds recalled.
Big-game guide Pete Buist suspects those hunters and Graybill were headed east for the Alaska Range. Buist credits Graybill and his imported hunters with just about wiping out the Dall sheep population in some of that country in the 1970s. Buist can't quite understand why there seem to be so many people who now revere Graybill.
"Maybe people just don't remember,'' Buist said, "and he was smart. There is that. The fact of the matter is he ran circles around the people trying to catch him for years.''
Buist himself has always been suspicious Graybill cleaned him out along the Johnson River one year. "I lost a whole camp and everything that was in it,'' he said. "It was like four (Piper Super) Cub trips worth.''
Buist was working downriver and saw a Cub flying when the camp disappeared. Graybill was a Cub fan. He flew a bunch of them and crashed a few or more. Until this year, he somehow always walked or swam away. His survival bordered on miraculous. He put a Cub down in Shelikoff Strait north of Kodiak in the dark after experiencing engine trouble in 1973.
"Ahead in the distance,'' Jeff Wise later wrote in National Geographic Adventure, "he made out a single point of light, which turned out to be a fishing trawler. Nursing the ailing engine along, Graybill took the plane in as close to the ship as he could and managed a nearly impossible feat -- setting down in 20-foot waves without flipping over. As seawater poured into the mangled cockpit, Graybill and his (16-year-old) daughter (Teri) struggled out into the frigid ocean. Since he rarely flew over open water, Graybill didn't carry life preservers or survival gear. He hoisted Teri up onto the tail and treaded water, fighting for air amid the pounding waves. As a deadening chill crept through his body, Graybill called up to his daughter to ask if the trawler was turning around. 'No, Dad,' she replied. 'It just kept on going.'"
What the Graybills didn't know was that the boat was making a big sweeping turn to come back and get them. It rescued them before hypothermia set in. That was not, however, his first close call.
Graybill's two sides
More than a decade earlier, Graybill had been by himself when he smashed an airplane into the Steese Mountains north of Fairbanks on one of his early excursions north to Alaska to hunt. The plane was totaled, but John managed to survive. He hiked out to the nearby highway and hitched a ride to town.
Nobody seems quite sure of how many planes he crashed over the years, but Deardorf is confident there were more than two. "I'm sure it's gotta be more than that,'' he said.
When fate finally caught up, Fleek said, "it was too bad his wife was with him, and I'm glad his daughter wasn't.'' Fleek would have liked to seen Graybill locked up for years, but authorities never managed to keep him in custody for long.
Vic Van Ballenberghe, a former biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, remembers trying to catch Graybill after he illegally shot five wolves -- half of a pack Van Ballenberghe was studying -- from his airplane north of Glennallen in March 1976. A tipster and a wolf claw from one of the hides eventually linked Graybill to the killings, and the tipster somehow talked Graybill into taking him along on the next hunt.
State Fish and Wildlife by then had the tipster working as an undercover operative. He reported flying out with Graybill on a hunt.
The first thing they did, Van Ballenberghe said, was stop in the Talkeetna Mountains to burglarize a cabin. Then they raided a state Fish and Game fuel cache. And when they couldn't find any wolves to shoot from the airplane, they shot a wolverine.
Graybill was subsequently charged, but managed to get off on a technicality. He didn't really get hit hard until the early 1980s when the state again managed to get an undercover operative in the airplane with him. This time Graybill and the undercover operative flew around shooting so many big game animals -- caribou, wolves, wolverines and more -- that a judge was at one point moved to ask state officials how many animals they though they had to kill before making the arrest.
Some who knew Graybill well said the killing probably went on for so long because the undercover was having fun hanging out with the Chugiak man. Whatever the case, it cost the plumber that time.
"He did time in jail,'' said Van Ballenberghe, who was called to testify at the sentence hearing for Graybill. The wildlife biologist remembers Graybill getting sentenced to 18 months in the early 1988s.
Wise's lengthy profile -- "Meet John Graybill legendary bush pilot, notorious poacher in Alaska's Outlaw Wars, and, at 70 years old, the last of a dying breed" -- doesn't mention the Chugiak man doing time, but does note that "by 1988, Graybill says, he was tired of fighting. After a final wolf-hunting case that year, 'I kind of fell in line,' he says. 'To tell you the truth, I'd beat my head against the wall long enough. It finally dawned on me they were smarter.'"
Or so Graybill said.
One of the many hunting, trapping and flying forums buzzing with stories about him on Monday contained a report from someone in the Lower 48 who claimed to have come to Alaska to hunt caribou with Graybill in 2001.
Reynolds said that wouldn't come as a surprise. It was, he said, almost like Graybill had two personalities -- one the affable and friendly neighbor next door, the other the thief and poacher.
Sometimes, the former game warden said, when he told people who knew the former Graybill about the latter, "they wouldn't believe what I told them. But he's the worst (poacher) I've ever knew. He had to be killing something all of the time."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.